Who are You? Who am I? And the Problem of Identity Optics

Who are You? Who am I? 

When I am asked to introduce myself, to engage in this common social encounter that implores folks to perceive and present themselves by way of affiliation with a brand, a title, a field of theory or practice, an institutional network, etc., the following entails what I hope will someday be considered a fluent response:

Identity, like infinity, is not an object that can be defined (even built objects are not entirely quantifiable according to Schrodinger), but rather a concept of potentiality that eludes definition because it is continuously changing. Perhaps our observable and sociodemographic differences appear to distinguish us on the surface, but the pattern that we are all differentiated and continually changing is, in and of itself, a ‘same-ness’ that unifies us in and across the diversity of our embedded human experiences & systems.

Since it has come to my attention that such a response is not usually welcomed, maybe it would be a useful to explore the structural and functional aspects–at both the intellectual and social level–of such interactions in finer definition. Why do we need to identify as a subject at all in order for our ideas, thoughts, and feelings to be received and critically evaluated with logic & love? If fair consideration of a proposition is contingent upon the social desirability of the person who espouses said proposition, does this not impede the proliferation of emergent knowledge and innovative problem solving strategies, in a very extreme way?

Existential anxiety, or the fear of meaninglessness, coupled with widespread access to technological outlets allowing for the distribution of curated personas (aka constructions of the avatars we think we want to be), has perhaps contributed to the emergence of a social system that selects for rigid self-conceptualizing motivated by an insatiable desire to ‘feel good about oneself’. It is deeply ironic that these topical characteristics, usually demographic or socioeconomic information over which we cannot usually exert direct intentional enaction, are so often used as a basis upon which to evaluate ‘another’ so as to predict the relational characteristics of ‘your’ connection to ‘them’. Always ‘I’ versus ‘you’, ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

Now, it could certainly be argued that there are adaptive elements to thinking categorically. Group identification is not only evolutionarily advantageous when it comes to identifying predators/prey, but an affinity for identifying with larger greater than oneself could be seen as a means of spiritual development. Maybe this would be the case for us if we approached group affiliation with an intentional awareness of our connectedness to humanity…really our continuity & co-emergence with all matter in space. We would argue, however, that these aforementioned principles and attitudes are not salient intellectual features of the group affiliating that goes on in our culture today.

We base our identification and formulation of this problem upon the following observations:

a) From the individual to the aggregate, we do not reason in ways that prioritize intellectual and ecological integrity. This is reflected by a mainstream social discourse that rewards the sort of self branding that functions to satiate underlying individual ego hunger.


b) our group identification usually implies and implores us to assume an attitude of opposition toward– and devaluation of– any categorically “different” group (as opposed to embracing the potentially invaluable nature of all in an expression of human (and non-human) inclusion).

Additional, large-scale parameters such as competitive conditions, finite resources, and a language/culture of greed represent a system that is structure such that it is highly unlikely that spiritual connectedness emerges as the interactional function.

So are competition, hierarchy, and moral and intellectual binaries mediating a sort of addiction to ‘ourselves’? Is this related to the emergence of a burgeoning spiritual and intra-psychic deficit spanning the individual to the global system? Do we desperately act in ways that are less and less driven by our real values, and that are increasingly driven by our need to be valued?  Maybe that anxious, phrenetic energy undermines our ability to stop, reflect, and think. Maybe the best way that we can do to functionally manage is to seek refuge in the comfort of categorical simplicity and binaries: of dramatic hero-villain narratives. 

The illusion of closure and certainty that definitions and labels invoke may elicit a sense of security. Comfort is a compelling crouch, but is it worth the price of our integrity, dignity, freedom, autonomy, and creativity? This writer would argue emphatically – fuck no.

 Can you imagine what innovation might emerge if we diverted our time and mental energy away from personal optics and toward real reduction of human suffering?

Even if we arrived at the point of being able to tackle the burgeoning issue of our own lack of self-reflection, our bloated self-concepts, and deceptive self-presentations, we come to yet another problem: the [mis]understanding of what constitutes “helping”.

Maybe we should consider the possibility that effective “help” is not asymmetrical or unidirectional. Perhaps, ‘help’ is not about being in some position of epistemic authority (or any other type of authority) such that one reaches down to ‘help’ others in need. “Help” is dynamic. It’s reciprocal or bi-directional. It means working with others such that the co-production & co-consumption of value emerges.

Getting back to the initial questions at hand: Who are you? Who am I?

Here’s the thing about that question: It appears to imply a bounded set of solutions, none of which contain a sufficient answer. So, perhaps I can elaborate on ‘who I am not’, but asserting some half-ass formulation of ‘who I am’, feels conceptually and perceptually dishonest.


I am because we are(?). And I would be a whole lot better at being whoever “I am” at any given moment if we could all stop trying to capture, distill, and inscribe those moments on our LinkedIn profiles. Maybe it would be better time spent if, instead, we began intentionally paying attention to and learning from, the present experience of being and becoming.

In Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl writes (not verbatim, but something to the effect) there are two types  of human forces in our world: those that are evil and those that are not. He writes that both forces pervade all organizations: societies, economies, domains, networks, working groups, and individuals. One might interpret this to mean that, if we’re going to classify people, there is only one variable across which to stratify: ‘those who do act like assholes most of the time’ and ‘those who don’t act like assholes most of the time’. 

We’re all part of the problem–we’re all assholes sometimes–but learning from those experiences  by striving to act like assholes less and less of the time– maybe that’s our “why”…or a part of it, anyway.

0 0 vote
Article Rating

Leave a Reply

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x